March 24, 1938|
Eureka, California, United States
March 1978 (age 39 or 40)|
exact location unknown
Leader, The Lyman Family
Lyman grew up in California and Oregon. As a young man, according to the music newsletter The Broadside of Boston, he spent a number of years traveling the country and learning harmonica and banjo from such musicians as Brother Percy Randolph and Obray Ramsey.
During a period in the early 1960s, Lyman lived in New York City, where he associated with other artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers. He was a friend of underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas, which led to the studios of Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner. He learned the art of filmmaking from Conner and made some films with him.
|“||Mel Lyman played harmonica like no one under the sun / Mel Lyman didn't just play harmonica, he was one. – Landis MacKellar||”|
In 1963 Lyman joined Jim Kweskin’s Boston-based jug band as a banjo and harmonica player. Lyman, once called "the Grand Old Man of the 'blues' harmonica in his mid-twenties", is remembered in folk music circles for playing a 20-minute improvisation on the traditional hymn "Rock of Ages" at the end of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to the riled crowd streaming out after Bob Dylan’s famous appearance with an electric band. Some felt that Lyman, primarily an acoustic musician, was delivering a wordless counterargument to Dylan’s new-found rock direction. Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out Magazine, wrote that Lyman’s "mournful and lonesome harmonica" provided "the most optimistic note of the evening".
In 1966, supported and funded by Mekas, Lyman published his first book, Autobiography of a World Savior, which set out to reformulate spiritual truths and occult history in a new way. In 1971, Lyman published Mirror at the End of the Road, derived from letters he wrote during his formative years, starting in 1958 from his initial attempts to learn and become a musician, through the early 1960s as his life widened and deepened musically and personally. The last entries are from 1966 which simply express the profound joys and deepest losses which defined and gave his life direction and meaning in the years ahead. The key to the book and the life he lived afterwards are stated simply in the dedication at the beginning "To Judy who made me live with a broken heart".
The Lyman Family, The Fort Hill Community and the Avatar
It was his relationship with Judy Silver that brought him to Boston in 1963. Again, Lyman became acquainted with many artists and musicians in the vibrant Boston scene, including Timothy Leary's group of LSD enthusiasts, International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Lyman was involved for a very short time and, against his wishes, so was Judy. Knowing LSD’s power, he felt she was not ready but stated "the bastards at IFIF gave her acid … I told her not to take it. I knew her head couldn't take it." Lyman’s fears turned out to be justified and she left college and returned to her parents in Kansas. According to one of the anonymous sources interviewed by David Felton for Rolling Stone, "Judy got all fucked up – this is his second old lady – I mean like she got really twisted. I don't know if it was the acid or the scene or whatever, but she split. She went back to Kansas. She was totally out of the picture by the summer of 1963. Judy is probably the most important thing in Mel's life. He worshipped Judy, really loved her. Then she split, you know? She couldn't help it, she was totally freaked out. They took her away." Lyman was by all accounts very charismatic and later, after Judy had left, a community or family naturally tended to grow up around him. At some point thereafter Lyman began to realize himself as destined for a role as a spiritual force and leader.
In 1966, Lyman founded and headed The Lyman Family, also known as The Fort Hill Community, centered in a few houses in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury, then a poor neighborhood of Boston. The Fort Hill Community, to observers in the mid-to-late Sixties, combined some of the outward forms of an urban hippie commune with a neo-transcendentalist socio-spiritual structure centered on Lyman, the friends he had attracted and the large body of his music and writings. Members of Lyman's Community briefly included the young couple Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, two non-actors who had been discovered and cast by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni for the lead roles in his second English-language feature, the 1970 film Zabriskie Point. Michael Kindman, founder of the East Lansing underground newspaper The Paper, briefly worked on Avatar and remained with the group for five years. He later wrote of his experiences in his book My Odyssey Through the Underground Press. Journalist and poet Paul Williams, founder of Crawdaddy rock magazine and author of Das Energi, spent a few months on Fort Hill. He told David Felton he had had to escape under cover of darkness after being told he would not be allowed to leave.
Although Lyman and the Family shared some attributes with the hippies – prior experimenting with LSD and marijuana and Lyman’s cosmic millennialism – they were not actually hippies; in fact, the ethos of the community was virulently anti-hippie. Female members dressed and behaved conservatively and male members wore their hair relatively short by the standards of the era. According to both Felton and Kindman, Lyman discouraged sexual activity and at least once ordered a pregnant member to get an abortion. Couples were discouraged from spending private time together. Women were expected to be obedient and serve in domestic capacities only, while men were expected to dominate and control them. Members turned over whatever money they had to the Family. Funds were used to purchase houses in the Fort Hill area for members to live in, construction tools and vehicles along with sound and video recording equipment for Lyman's use. The community's primary activity was construction and remodeling work. The foremost goal was to provide a supportive environment for Lyman to do his creative work.
According to both Felton and Kindman, a macho, bullying ethic prevailed and guns were frequently brandished. Lyman seemed to believe that one could only be truly creative when one was "real" or "awake" – defined in practice as experiencing intense pain or anger – and that fear and cowardice caused one to remain "asleep" or even to die. People were subjected to rigid discipline and highly structured lives.
By the Spring of 1967 the Fort Hill Community had become an established presence in Boston and it, along with members of the wider community in greater Boston and Cambridge, came together to create and publish the Avatar. It contained local news, political and cultural essays, commentary and more personal contributions, writing and photography, from various members of the Fort Hill Community including Lyman. The paper and magazine set new standards in content and design later adopted by more mainstream publications. Throughout the first year of its existence it created what became a national audience and many more people visited Fort Hill at that time, some eventually staying and becoming part of the community.
Rather than the gentle and collectivist hippie ethic in other underground publications of the time, Lyman’s writing in Avatar espoused a philosophy that contained, to some readers of the time, strong currents of megalomania and nihilism and to others a powerful alternative voice to the prevailing ethos.
|“||I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble / and then I am going to burn the rubble / and then I am going to scatter the ashes / and then maybe SOMEONE will be able to see SOMETHING as it really is / WATCHOUT||”|
After working very intensely on each issue, in the Spring of 1968 the Family gained complete editorial control of Avatar for the final issue of the paper. Later they founded their own magazine, American Avatar which continued the editorial directions of the newspaper. Lyman’s writings in these publications brought increased visibility and public reaction both pro and con. His writings, along with others in the publications, could be poetic, philosophical, humorous and confrontational, sometimes simultaneously, as Lyman at various times claimed to be: the living embodiment of Truth, the greatest man in the world, Jesus Christ, and an alien entity sent to Earth in human form by extraterrestrials. Such pronouncements were typically delivered with extreme fervor and liberal use of ALL CAPS.
Later developments, and Lyman’s death
On The Dick Cavett Show in 1970, Mark Frechette said Lyman's group was not a commune: "It's a 'community', but the purpose of the community is not communal living. ... The community is for one purpose, and that's to serve Mel Lyman, who is the leader and the founder of that community."
In 1971, Rolling Stone magazine published an extensive cover exposé on the Family by associate editor David Felton. The Rolling Stone report described an authoritarian and dysfunctional environment, including an elite "Karma Squad" of ultra-loyalists to enforce Lyman’s discipline, the Family's predilection for astrology, and isolation rooms for disobedient Family members. Family members disputed these reports, but ex-members corroborated much of them, especially Michael Kindman in My Odyssey Through the Underground Press.
|“||The only difference between us and the Manson Family is that we don't go around preaching peace and love and we haven't killed anyone, yet. – Jim Kweskin (perhaps in jest)||”|
The Rolling Stone article and the earlier trial of Charles Manson, who seemed to share some traits in common with Lyman, raised the Family’s profile and – whether fairly or not – established Lyman in the public mind as a bizarre and possibly dangerous person.
In 1973, members of the Family, including Frechette, staged a bank robbery. One member of the Family was killed by police, and Frechette, sentenced to prison, died in a weightlifting accident in jail in 1975.
Unlike the Manson Family, Lyman’s did not explode in a dramatic denouement. Rather, the Family took a lower profile and carried on, quietly building on the relationships formed in the turbulent early years. Lyman died in 1978, age 40; the location and cause of death has not been publicly revealed.
After Lyman’s death, the Family evolved into a smaller, more conventional extended family. The skills acquired in refurbishing the structures of the Family compound led to the founding of the Fort Hill Construction Company. Although some former Family members have rejected Lyman, current members still revere him.
- Lyman, Mel. Autobiography of a World Savior (New York, Jonas Press, 1966)
- Lyman, Mel. Mirror at the End of the Road (American Avatar, 1971) (Distributed by Ballantine Books)
- Avatar writings: see Articles & Columns by Mel Lyman, Avatar 1967-68, American Avatar 1968-69 at Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive.
- Other writings: see Indexes to columns, articles, etc. at Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive.
- Celebrated essayist Bruce Chatwin wrote about the Fort Hill Community in “The Lyman Family – A Story” in his book What Am I Doing Here? (Picador, 1989). Entire essay reprinted at Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive. Trussel includes a page of annotations explaining that many of Chatwin's claims are extreme and don't match the facts.
- American Avatar: Love Comes Rolling Down, (Warner Bros./Reprise 6353, 1970)
- Jim Kweskin’s America, (Warner Bros.Reprise Records 6464, 1971), producer (as Richard D. Herbruck) and performer.
- Lyman appeared as an instrumentalist on various tracks of other albums. See Mel Lyman: Recorded Music for complete list.
- "The Mel Lyman Personality Cult Revisited" by Kliph Nesteroff.
- Notes on Mel Lyman. The Broadside of Boston, Sept. 18, 1963
- MEL LYMAN (March 24, 1938 – March 1978) In FolkWorks, online version of the 2001-2007 magazine of folk & traditional music for Southern California.
- Landis MacKellar (1999). "Mel Lyman". Bath, Michigan (album). Retrieved July 10, 2011.
- Harmonica by John Bowers. Coronet, May 1965, pp 138-143.
- On the Scene by Robert J. Lurtsema. Broadside, Aug. 18, 1965
- Referring to Judy Silver, Lyman's second wife, who left him in 1963. David Felton, "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America". (originally appeared in Rolling Stone, Dec. 23, 1971, pp. 40-60).
- Mirror at the End of the Road Mel Lyman, An American Avatar Publication, United Illuminating Inc. 1971.]
- David Felton, "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America". Originally appeared in Rolling Stone 98, Dec. 23, 1971, pp. 40-60, and Rolling Stone 99, Jan. 6, 1972, pp. 40-60. Reprinted in Mindfuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America, David Felton, ed. (San Francisco: Straight Arrow, 1972) and reprinted in its entirety in Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive.
- Avatar # 1
- Michael Kindman, My Journey Through the Underground Press. In Ken Wachsberger, ed., Voices from the Underground: Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press Vol. 1, pp. 369-478. Mica Press 1993, and Michigan State University Press, June 1, 2011. Kindman's account of his Fort Hill experience, reprinted in its entirety at Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive.
- "As Paul (Williams) explained it, the men generally started work at nine in the morning, broke for breakfast at 11, broke again for lunch at four and finished work and cleaned up just before dinner at nine in the evening. It was a schedule Mel had worked out for maximum health, appetite control and work output. Times and amounts of coffee intake were similarly dictated." David Felton, "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America", Part I. Rolling Stone. No. 98, pp. 40-60, Dec. 23, 1971. Williams was a member of the Lyman cult for several months according to Felton.
- Avatar #16
- on YouTube
- popcultureaddict.com Return to Zabriskie Point: The Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin Story
- "Once-Notorious '60s Commune Evolves Into Respectability : After 19 Years the Lyman Family Prospers as Craftsmen and Farmers," Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1985
- Mel Lyman Revisted, April 2011, WFMU
- Steve Trussel's Mel Lyman archive
- Illustrated Lisa Kindred discography (American Avatar)
- Illustrated Jim Kweskin discography (Jim Kweskin's America and other Mel Lyman contributions)
- “Battle of Four-Letter Words” March 1968 TIME Magazine article about Boston police campaign to arrest any street-salesmen caught selling Avatar.
- Mel Lyman & The Lyman Family 2005 essay for Ugly Things magazine by Patrick Lundborg